Closer scrutiny of the presidency may be the real result of this election
No individual should be allowed glide, unquestioned, through 14 years in the nation’s most prestigious job
As for the incumbent, questions remain unanswered and his sometime tetchy demeanour suggests a man who after seven long years of presidential adulation has grown unaccustomed to being questioned. Photograph: Frank Miller
When the shouting dies down on Saturday, we might pause the self-congratulations and address a serious question. When even Gavin Duffy – polling at 4 per cent – admits there has been “a bit of concern about the calibre of the class of 2018”, we should be wondering how the system produced such an odd array of presidential candidates.
Ireland has a fair share of dignified, nuanced, reflective individuals, people of ideas and judgment and more than a nodding acquaintance with the Constitution; men and women driven by a desire for public service rather than a pumping ego, shiny rewards or a big, blundering mouth. Why have they not stepped forward?
The obvious explanation is that the incumbent finally declared himself available and the opinion polls declared him victor. But previous contested elections were able to throw up a couple of candidates considered capable of representing the country. That meant the electorate had a choice. And despite the high drama, political thuggery, leaks, smears, and slashed tyres, this much was evident: voters seemed to have a good nose for what the position required and the appropriate person to fill it.
The difference this time, if the polls are remotely indicative, is that voters discern no contest. Not even a whiff.
This suits nearly everyone. The incumbent has proved his worth so why bother. It also suits the political parties – Fine Gael, Fianna Fail and Labour, Higgins’s nominating party first time out – that combined to support him in a highly practical move. Costs in funding, shoe-leather, hassle and general skulduggery are a fraction of what they might be and what with a general election hovering somewhere out there, a contest was best avoided altogether, obviously.
The problem is that we live in a time when an elitist stitch-up is discernible in every oddly-shaped potato and when everyone, regardless of motivation, suitability, experience or level of self-awareness feels entitled to a shot at the big job. So of course there was always going to be a contest. And as long as there were county councils happy to signal their democratic virtue, there were always going to be nominees. Yet the big parties (apart from Sinn Féin) simply threw in the towel.
Given the political closing of ranks in favour of the incumbent, combined with the public acclaim and the inbuilt advantages to the sitting President (the impressive presidential transport and security, delightful Áras photo opportunities, the pick of the debates), no credible outsider with a single functioning brain cell was going to be silly enough to touch it.
Which is how we ended up where we are, a bit taken aback, embarrassed and trebly dazzled by the incumbent. As I write, Peter Casey is having a crack at the Áras dogs because – to paraphrase his video narrator with the oddly showbizzy American accent – they’re Bernese mountain dogs rather than native Irish. The nominating bodies should have a good look at themselves. To which their response, no doubt, would be that they had little choice.
For now none of this matters; the popular candidate will romp home.
It will matter when a less acclaimed candidate/incumbent managed to harness the same system to float to victory. Public tastes change.
For all the flakiness of some other campaigns, this is new Trump-style territory for Ireland
It’s just seven years, remember, since Sean Gallagher was coasting towards a decisive victory over Higgins and garnered more than half a million votes, even after the infamous fake tweet. Meanwhile, Duffy reckons his own polling figures would be up to 20 per cent if the other Dragons had stayed out of it.
In the bigger picture, the debacle has done no service to the office of the president. Asked to back up various allegations against the President, Casey’s campaign told the Sunday Business Post’s Hugh O’Connell: “Peter said he’ll give you all the info you need on the 27th [the day after the election] . . . The information is available publicly. Peter will reveal his sources when Michael D Higgins reveals his expenses after the election”.
For all the flakiness of some other campaigns, this is new Trump-style territory for Ireland. Allegations are blurted openly (not leaked or distorted by “sources” as has happened before) in a public forum with no sense of obligation to substantiate or contextualise them. Beyond being rejected by the voters, there is no sanction. As for the incumbent, questions remain unanswered and his sometimes tetchy demeanour suggests a man who after seven long years of presidential adulation has grown unaccustomed to being questioned.
But the nature of this contest means minimal scrutiny from parties who would otherwise be pontificating at high volume. The best that can be said about it is that some pertinent questions were asked, mainly by the media – which would not have happened had there been no contest.
Come October 2025, the incumbent will be obliged to step down. The hope, presumably, is that the campaign game will be lifted by a fresh roster of seriously presidential hopefuls; ideally people who haven’t been dazzled by their own celebrity publicity.
In the meantime, we could all help the process by guaranteeing, among other things, that no individual gets to glide, unquestioned, through 14 years in the nation’s most prestigious job.